Iconográfica: Chavela Vargas, the Queer Matriarch Latin Music Deserves

Illustration by Cristobal Saez for Remezcla.

There are few genres that exude the passion of Mexican culture more than ranchera. These songs ooze drama, and their interpreters must be able to navigate and emote heartbreak, yearning, and rebirth. No one has done it better than Chavela Vargas, La Chamana of Mexican folklore. Funnily enough, she was born in Costa Rica, but made a name for herself singing renditions of legendary composers like Agustín Lara and José Alfredo Jiménez in Mexico. Throughout her lengthy career, she rubbed shoulders with many Latin icons. She had a rumored affair with Frida Kahlo, and a close friendship with Pedro Almodóvar. Her unapologetic approach to life and her powerful voice made Chavela Vargas the queer matriarch that Latin music deserves.

Chavela Vargas was born Isabel Vargas Lizano on April 17, 1919 in San Joaquín de Flores, Costa Rica, where she felt that society was too conservative. At age 14, she moved to Mexico and she grew up in the local art scene. She even shared a house with Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera at one point, where a love affair between Frida and Chavela blossomed.

But it was José Alfredo Jiménez that discovered her and influenced the recording of her first solo album Noches de Bohemia in 1961. Chavela’s interpretation of rancheras stayed true to the machismo of the genre – even if she was a woman. By donning pants and her trademark red poncho as well as smoking cigars and drinking heavy tequila, Chavela lit up the bars and cantinas of Mexico.

Accompanied by a guitar, she would slow down typically upbeat rancheras and boleros to make you feel every single syllable of the song. Most of these songs had lyrics that were about women, but Chavela never changed the gender to fit a heterosexual relationship. “Macorina,” a song based on a poem by Alfonso Camín, best exemplifies the no-fucks-given attitude Chavela had towards Mexico’s conservative gender norms in the 1960s.

Chavela Vargas battled alcoholism for her whole life, and subsequently left the stage for 15 years. Along with the help of Pedro Almodóvar, La Chamana had a comeback in the 1990s that spread her popularity from Mexico and Latin America to Europe, all the way to a performance at the Olympia in Paris. Jokingly referring to each other as husband and wife, Pedro Almodóvar added her songs to two of his movies, further catapulting her comeback. Take a look at Almodóvar introducing Chavela to European audiences, and her performance of Agustín Lara’s “Piensa en Mi” below:

Until the last moment of her life, Chavela Vargas was touring, creating music, and breaking down barriers. At the age of 81, Chavela officially came out as a lesbian (even though she never tried to hide it). Though she passed away in 2012, Chavela’s legacy still roars on through her music, image, and her influence in today’s artists, like Concha Buika. She probably said it better with this quote she tweeted out before she left this world:

“I’m not going to die, because I am a chamana, and we don’t die, we transcend.”